Archive for the ‘Sportswriting showdown’ Category

Indiana tops Illinois in showdown

February 9, 2008

photo/Brad Vest (Daily Illini)

Indiana won an exciting double overtime basketball game last week, beating Illinois thanks to some missed free throws. It is unfair to say Shaun Pruitt lost the game for the Illini, even if his actions were crucial. Still, most fans will focus on the final plays – and so will sportswriters in most cases, which is fine in games like this. But we also need to offer analysis of other key points in the game to reveal how others also affected the outcome. In the Super Bowl last week, it would have been equally easy to say Eli Manning won the game for the Giants or that the Patriots defensive line lost it. We need to look beyond the easy to discover other reasons for results. That means learning as much as possible about game strategy. That means talking with those immersed in the game. I cannot emphasize this aspect enough. Sport writers need to speak with coaches and players before and after games to understand what happens in the games – even if you are on a tight deadline. We need to gain as much information before we write.

Let’s see how these stories compare in this week’s sports writing showdown. I want to again acknowledge that this assessment is intended for education and fun – NOT to demean the work of college journalists who work hard learning their profession. Unlike other college students, journalists have their homework graded by the public. As a newspaper adviser, I understand how challenging this can be. Still, let’s have a little fun with this exercise in the spirit of friendly competition. Please, feel free to offer your own comments below these stories as well.

Observation is an essential element for any reporter. This allow writers to capture moments before, during and after games that can help show key moments. That’s what Jason Grodsky did in his story published in the Daily Illini. Grodsky describes Pruitt, the Illini’s senior center who had twice failed to make crucial free throws. Pruitt failed to convert on a one-on-one opportunity with four seconds left in regulation. He also missed both free-throw attempts with two seconds left in the first overtime. Both would have given Illinois the victory. Grodsky does a good job showing this:

Shaun Pruitt’s head hung lower than anybody’s at the Assembly Hall on Thursday night.

Illinois’ senior center had three opportunities from the free-throw line to give Illinois the lead in the final minutes of Illinois’ game against Indiana, but the ball couldn’t find the bottom of the net.

After missing the front end of a one-and-one from the line with four seconds left in regulation, the senior center was unable to convert two more from the line with two seconds left in overtime.

In a game that saw eight lead changes and nine ties, the No. 14-ranked Hoosiers were able to pull ahead for the final time in the second overtime, outscoring Illinois 14-10 in the final period to escape with an 83-79 victory.

Normally, you do not want to delay the nut graph more than a few graphs. In this case, the score works fine in the fourth graph because the writer smoothly moved from an observation off the court to two key moments on the court. Still, this lead could have been improved had the writer described a little more of Pruitt walking, head hung low, as he sat as his locker, on the bench or as he walked off the court. Plus, he could have also asked some questions afterwards to learn more what Pruitt (and others) was thinking at this moment. More on this later.

Michael Sanserino, who writes for the Indiana Daily Student, offers a straight summary lead that offers a general assessment that also leads into a reference to Pruitt, clearly the focus of most any game story, before leading into the score in the third graph. This also works well – especially when one is probably faced with a tight deadline. EDGE: Illinois (slight).

These two writers focused on the key free throws, but they did not address other significant plays in much detail. Even though I watched some of this game, I would have liked more insights into how the game ended so tightly and why Indiana won the second overtime. Terry Bannon of the Chicago Tribune notes that other Illinois players also shot poorly from the free-throw line: “A major part of the story, especially at the end, was that the Illini made only 8 of 17 free throws, with senior center Shaun Pruitt making only 1 of 7.” And Bannon accurately notes that two players on the bench had an impact in the second overtime: “Illinois played the second overtime without Chester Frazier, who injured an ankle, and Brian Randle, who had fouled out.” Grodsky notes that Illinois guard Demetri McCamey scored nine points at the start of the second half, which is a good observation, but I would like to know how he scored – on short jumpers, three-pointers, lay ups, off high screens? And Sanserino writes that Indiana guard Armon Bassett took over in the second overtime by scoring nine points. This story should have also shown how he took over. Grodsky does a fine job offering an overview of trends (noting there were eight lead changes and that Illinois has lost all three overtime games this season), but the story could use more analysis. The same could be said for Sanserino’s story, even though he focused on more key moments – including the time Eric Gordon turned over the ball because of a ten-second violation.

But Gordon made mistakes as well. With IU up three and 25 seconds remaining, Gordon turned the ball over with a 10-second violation after he failed to dribble the ball past the half-court line. He responded by forcing a turnover on the next possession by pressuring Illinois guard Demetri McCamey, who botched a handoff to teammate Trent Meacham.

EDGE: Indiana.

Grodsky writes tightly. And he varies sentences, juxtaposing simple with complex. He twice uses dashes, though, when commas are more appropriate. Reserve dashes for when you want to change directions, deliver punch lines and shock and humor readers. They add flair and style to a story’s telling. But they should not be used just to replace commas as they do below:

McCamey – who became Illinois’ premier recruit after Gordon backed out of his verbal commitment to Illinois – outplayed Gordon, hitting a career high seven three pointers.

Sanserino offers a pretty good mix of sentences, too. But some could use trimming, like the following (deleted words in orange):

Gordon shot just 3of13 from the field, but he made 10of12 free-throw attempts to finish with a team-high 19 points, which was tops for the Hoosiers. But none of Gordon’s no points were more important than the 3-pointer he banked in with less than 30 seconds left to tie that tied the score at 63-63.

He also uses several clichés, saying a shooter ‘bricked’ two free throws, calling the free-throw line the ‘charity stripe,’ and writing that the second half was a ‘frame.’ Also, games are not ‘contests.’ Save that word for pageants and figure skating. Plus, we should avoid tossing expletives in stories unless they are essential. In a game story, rarely would you state that fans yelled ‘fuck you’ to a player. Instead, say these (moronic) fans cursed or yelled expletives. That gets the point across just fine. Now, if a player like Chester Frazier were to get suspended for saying ‘fuck you’ when he bumped into Gordon, then that might be significant to add in a follow-up or analysis piece. EDGE: Illinois.

This category was a slam dunk. The Illinois story did not include a single quote, whereas Indiana’s offered comments from both coaches. There are really two issues here – deadline and web content. On deadline, it can be difficult to get as many sources as you would like, especially when the game goes into double overtime. But we must try. The players and coaches offer perspectives that we cannot offer in the press box or at a table behind the official scorer. For instance, what was Pruitt thinking when he hung his head after the game and what went through his mind before, during, and after his crucial free throws? What were his teammates thinking as he attempted these shots? How was Gordon able to bank that really long three-pointer in the first overtime? And why in the heck did Frazier bump Gordon, a classless act that should have merited some bench time. Ask the follow-up questions. If you can’t interview coaches before deadline, get someone else to grab some quotes. Or you can quickly file your story before heading to the locker rooms for comments you can insert later. Update stories on the web as you get new information. That’s one of the advantages of the web.

Sanserino includes a few quotes in his story, which is a good first step. But he, like many other sport writers, needs to ask sources to expand on their thoughts by asking follow-up questions. Journalists interview to get information, not to record quotes. For example, Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson says: “In the second half, our defense got better.” I would then ask, in what specific ways did the team improve – and I would keep posing similar questions until I received a specific answer that I could explain to my readers. Sampson says of Gordon: “He probably was pressing a little bit.” How could Sampson tell? And how specifically did Gordon press? These insights would be great for readers. Still, Sanserino did chase down these coaches to offer some insights. EDGE: Indiana.

Grodsky did a fine job of focusing on Pruitt, but Sanserino kept looking for ways to reveal the game by revealing key moments, offering comments from coaches, and describing trends in the game. EDGE: Indiana.

Overall, Indiana takes this close ‘contest’ (yes, this is not a game.) Writing on deadline can be a challenge, but that does not mean we should use this as an excuse. Speak with more sources, offer analysis, avoid clichés like the plague, and read other writers to learn structure. Check out the book review section on this blog for some terrific sports books as well. Sports editors are looking for stories (clips) that include these elements. Keep working hard.

Both schools did a fine job with multimedia packages. Keep working in new media if you want a job in the future. Click here to see the Daily Illini’s package and here to see the Indiana Daily Student’s.


UF-Georgia showdown much closer off the court

February 2, 2008

Andy Landers won his 700th basketball game as coach of Georgia’s women’s team, making him the fourth coach to reach this plateau. That’s no small feat given the highly competitive nature of the Southeastern Conference. Surely, Georgia fans were doubly excited that this milestone victory came against rival Florida. The No. 17 Bulldogs routed the Gators, 82-55.

Off the court, the college journalists covering these games were faced with a different task – revealing the importance of the game to its distinct readers, something these reporters did pretty well. They did an especially fine job of illustrating key moments and offering context.

Let’s see how these stories compare in this week’s sports writing showdown. I want to again acknowledge that this assessment is intended for education and fun – NOT to demean the work of college journalists who work hard learning their profession. Unlike other college students, journalists have their homework graded by the public. As a newspaper adviser, I understand how challenging this can be. Still, let’s have a little fun with this exercise in the spirit of friendly competition. Please, feel free to offer your own comments below these stories as well.

Kevin Copp focuses on Landers’ milestone win, which makes sense for the hometown newspaper. In the opening five paragraphs, Copp puts Landers’ accomplishment in perspective: he is only the third coach to win 700 at a single school and fourth fastest to do so. The lead includes the obligatory quote from the coach as well, but that works well in the introductory paragraphs.

The No. 17 Lady Bulldogs secured a milestone victory for their head coach with their most dominant performance of the SEC season in an 82-55 win over Florida.

With the win, Andy Landers, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, recorded his 700th victory at Georgia.

“I’ve been blessed to be at a school with an administration that supported this,” Landers said. “More importantly, when you have great assistant coaches and great players, this is something that’s going to happen.”

Landers joins Tennessee’s Pat Summitt and Texas’ Jody Conradt as the only coaches to record 700 wins at a single school.

Landers is the eighth coach in women’s basketball history to reach 700 career wins. It took him 918 games to reach the mark, making the Georgia coach the fourth-fastest to 700 wins behind Summitt, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Conradt.

Sophomore point guard Ashley Houts illustrated what a low profile Landers kept about the achievement, as she first found out by reading a sign held up in the stands during the game.

Gators fans would not be as excited to dwell on Landers’ achievement, although Phil Kegler correctly references this feat in a story published in the Independent Alligator. Instead, Braun evaluates the impact of this rout, revealing that Florida is not yet among the top teams in the SEC.

The Gators talked all week about the opportunity a game with No. 17 Georgia held.

Full of momentum, they called it a chance to see where they matched up with one of the nation’s best, one year removed from a disappointing 9-22 season, and playing at home, where they’d won eight straight.

Instead, UF (13-6, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) tried its hardest to imitate last year’s team as Georgia (16-3, 3-2 SEC) dismantled them 82-55 Thursday, tying UF’s largest margin of defeat this season.

Both reporters did their job. EDGE: Even.

The Florida story includes comments from both coaches and a key player from both teams, compared to a single source in the Georgia story. EDGE: Florida.


Kegler addresses key moments and relevant stats. He explains why the Gators played poorly in the first half (because they shot 23.3 percent), why the team fell behind (two extended scoreless droughts), and how Georgia compensated when its All-American was forced to the bench in foul.

It was so bad on both ends for UF that Georgia guard Ashley Houts matched UF’s first-half output singlehandedly, scoring 21 of her career-high 25 points in the opening 20 minutes.

With teammate and All-American Tasha Humphrey stuck on the bench with two fouls, Houts put a bigger focus on looking for her own shot.

“That’s been a common case this season, and my shot was kind of falling for me tonight,” Houts said. “I was feeling good about it so I wasn’t afraid to take it.”

Landers called Houts’ performance “incredible.”

“Basketball is a game of opportunity,” Landers said. “What Ashley did tonight was take advantage of the opportunities. She found the gaps. She found the seams. She got the ball deep and laid it up. Then when she was left open on the perimeter, [she] spotted up and shot it very, very well.”

Kegler does a terrific job breaking down the game while Kopp’s strength is in breaking down the significance of Landers’ victory, putting the 700th win in perspective. Would have liked more analysis of the game. EDGE: Florida.

Neither writer relied heavily on clichés or jargon, although Copp used “long range” for three-point range and Kegler called UF’s offense “high octane,” a vague, cliched term. Also, the teams are referred to as Lady Bulldogs and Lady Gators. We need to pressure schools to delete these sexist labels. EDGE: Even.

Copp attacked the story straight on, stating that the Bulldogs coach won a milestone victory and that Georgia won in a rout, which is a solid approach. Some other suggested approaches: reveal the coach’s thoughts when he realized he would win his 700th victory, focus more on the fact he did not tell his players, or interview Pat Summitt or Jody Conradt before the game to include their perspectives. Kegler’s strength is the way he puts the game in perspective. Suggestion: Ask more follow-up questions so sources can further explain what they mean in quotes like: “It’s very disappointing. We just couldn’t get our offensive flow early.” What strategy had they hoped to apply – and how specifically did the flow get disrupted? EDGE: Even.

Overall, the edge goes to Florida 2-0, but both writers should be commended for doing a solid job on deadline, which can be a challenge. I wish both writers continued success.


Maryland edges UNC in sportswriting showdown

January 20, 2008

photo/U of Maryland Diamondback

Michigan relied on a 40-foot desperation shot to defeat Wisconsin women’s basketball this weekend. And Maryland’s men celebrated when Tyler Hansbrough’s last-second shot bounced off the rim in Chapel Hill, N.C., in arguably the biggest upset of the season.

Nothing is more exciting in college sports than a hard-fought game – especially when that game is against a regular rival. Sprinkle in last-minute heroics or a major upset and the drama increases and the bumps starting goosing up though the skin.

The college journalists covering these games were up to the task of revealing these exciting games, even if the stories lacked some perspective at times. These sportwriters grabbed readers by writing solid stories that offered context, analysis, and good writing.

Sources, though, seem to be the biggest problem in college sports reporting. Too often, college journalists fail to offer sufficient perspective, relying too heavily on comments from their own coaches and players. Always speak to athletes on both sides. (More about this later this week when I offer the results of a survey of college newspapers across the country.)

In order to more clearly illustrate how games should be covered, each week I plan to compare stories written about the same game, essentially pitting the two writers against one another. This week I have selected two games – the men’s basketball game between Maryland and North Carolina and the women’s game between Wisconsin and Michigan – since they are both exciting and accessible.

Each week, we’ll have a sports writing showdown. I want to first acknowledge that this assessment is intended for education and fun – NOT to demean the work of college journalists who work hard learning their profession. Unlike other college students, journalists have their homework graded by the public. As a newspaper adviser, I understand how challenging this can be. Still, let’s have a little fun with this exercise in the spirit of friendly competition. Please, feel free to offer your own comments below these stories as well.

Stories will be scored based upon the following criteria – leads, context/analysis, sources, language/writing style, and originality.

This week’s showdown pits the Daily Tar Heel (North Carolina) against the Diamondback (Maryland) in one match-up and the Michigan Daily against Wisconsin’s Badger Herald in the other. We’ll dig into the ACC match-up first. Tomorrow, we’ll assess the Big Ten battle.

In what may prove to be the biggest upset of the year, Maryland defeated previously undefeated North Carolina 82-80 on Saturday. The Tar Heels had won 18 in a row, but extending such a streak through a rigorous ACC schedule is a daunting task. Maryland, now 12-7 and 2-2 in the conference, has defeated UNC several times during the past several seasons. Let’s break down the coverage of this big game by category.

Andrew Zuckerman focuses on the final play of the game, observing how the players reacted when UNC’s final shot bounced off the rim. This writer did a fine job describing the final scene:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Tyler Hansbrough’s last-second 3-pointer hadn’t even yet clanked off the rim, but the Terrapins could tell it wasn’t going in – so much that Cliff Tucker even threw his arms in the air to celebrate an improbable win.

The lead could have been offered in two shorter – punchier – sentences by replacing the dash with a period, deleting “so much that,” and starting a new sentence with “Cliff Tucker even threw…” But that’s picky. … It’s much more difficult to write a story when your home team loses in a wild upset, but Gray Caldwell does a great job finding the appropriate angle: “It couldn’t last forever.” EDGE: Maryland (slightly).

Zuckerman includes comments from the hometown team – coach Gary Williams and three Terrapin players. … Caldwell doesn’t do much better, offering only the thoughts of his hometown coach and players. A story that mixed comments from both teams would have offered great insights. The sources are limited. EDGE: Even.

Both writers did a fine job putting this game into perspective, but Zuckerman did a slightly better job. He states this game is an upset for the ages (an exaggeration, perhaps, but this is a big upset considering UNC’s record. Yet, this hardly stacks up against a real upset for the ages — N.C. State’s win in the NCAA final.) And Zuckerman also assesses that Maryland seemed to be playing for an NIT bid, that it was the seventh time a Gary Williams team had defeated a No. 1 team, and that Maryland had stifled Hansbrough for most of the game. … Caldwell puts the loss in perspective (it’s only one loss, after all) and assesses the final sequence of plays, which works well; however, it’s tough to beat writing about a major upset. EDGE: Maryland.

The ‘upset for the ages’ statement could have easily gone overboard, but this writer puts it in perspective. Caldwell also inserted borderline clichés (dominating the paint and trying to bounce back). Otherwise, these writers eschewed using clichés and jargon, instead offering fluid transitions and concise language. EDGE: Even.

Again, this is a close match-up, one that lends itself more to the one writing about the upset winner than the journalist describing the upset loser. Zuckerman relies heavily on description to lead into the story – and returns to that in the conclusion, shown below.

And when Hansbrough’s final shot harmlessly bounced to the floor to complete the upset, Williams showed the most emotion he has in a long time, much like his team did. Williams raised both arms into the air, turned around to the Terp fans and gave numerous fists pumps.

Caldwell, meanwhile, does an exemplary job of putting the game into context, keeping the focus there throughout the beginning. He also gets his sources to explain how it all happened, a key for every sportswriter. Here’s a terrific quote from Roy Williams.

Williams said that he was angry at his team’s lack of transition offense in the game and that he felt Maryland probably outran the Tar Heels.

“We had one time two guys give me the tired signal running back on defense,” he said. “That should never happen. If you’re going to be frickin’ tired, tell me on offense, don’t tell me as you’re running back and the other team’s laying it up on the other end.”

Once again, the choice is difficult here. So, again, I’ll be a fence-sitter and split the vote. These two young journalists did a fine job, though, which made the decisions close. EDGE: Even.

OVERALL: Maryland wins off the court as well, 2-0 by my score. But both writers should be commended for their stories. I would strongly recommend everybody consider one crucial part of reporting: interviewing. Speak with sources on both teams in all situations so you – and your readers – can learn more about the game. Head over to that other locker room and listen in.